Compared to the chore of hand-washing dishes, our dishwasher can sometimes seem like a lean, mean, cleaning machine. But in an age when most of us are re-examining how our choices affect the health of the environment, you might be wondering if your dishwasher is also green.
When it comes to using your dishwasher vs. hand-washing dishes, which option is more sustainable?
While dishwashers typically allow for the more efficient use of water and energy resources, there’s more to consider when weighing which method is more beneficial for our earth. From your dishwasher’s make and model to the way you use it, some helpful tips can ensure that your dishwashing results in both cleaner plates and a cleaner planet.
Is Using a Dishwasher More Sustainable?
When it comes to understanding how to wash dishes the sustainable way, you may be wondering if hand washing or using a dishwasher is better. If you’re used to hand washing, kicking back to watch your favorite show while your dishwasher does all the work can feel like the height of luxury.
But what’s the real impact of all that modern convenience?
The answer is complicated, but in most cases, science suggests dishwashers can help, not hurt. Studies have found that compared to households without dishwashers, households that have them use1:
- 50% less water per cleaned item
- 28% less energy per cleaned item
That would seem to suggest that when it comes to using a dishwasher vs. hand washing, dishwashers are the smackdown champ, right?
It depends. In general, using a dishwasher might save you some water, energy, and time. But the energy efficiency of your specific dishwasher and how you use it can also affect how well your dishwasher performs—for you and the environment.
Compared to Hand Washing, How Much Water Does a Dishwasher Use?
If you choose to hand-wash dishes or use a dishwasher, you may be wondering about the water usage of each. You can hear the water sloshing around. You may even be able to envision your plates transforming into sparkling-clean specimens. But how much water does a dishwasher use compared to washing them in your sink?
If you have a newer model dishwasher, there’s a good chance it carries an ENERGY STAR® label—a certification the U.S. EPA created to help consumers identify energy-efficient products.2
For dishwashers, that label mostly means that the machine uses an efficient amount of energy and water per load.
Yet, not all dishwashers are up to snuff when it comes to water efficiency. In particular, some older models can be much less efficient compared to modern dishwashers. How much? Let’s compare them side by side:
- Older dishwashers use between 10 and 15 gallons of water per cycle, according to the Water Research Foundation.3
- On the other hand, ENERGY STAR dishwashers use as little as 3 gallons per cycle.4
That may not sound like such a drastic difference from day to day, but it adds up. ENERGY STAR dishwashers can save an average of 3,870 gallons of water over their lifetime.
The consensus? If your dishwasher is ENERGY STAR-approved, you’re probably doing more for the environment by using it than washing your dishes by hand. In fact, washing by hand can use up even more water than some older dishwashers—depending on how much time you spend doing dishes.
The average kitchen faucet uses about 2.2 gallons of water per minute. Let’s say it takes you 15 minutes to wash a full load of dishes by hand. Assuming you run the faucet for the full 15 minutes, you’re going to use over 30 gallons of water. That’s almost three times as much water as your ENERGY STAR-labeled dishwasher requires.
Other Dishwashing Factors to Consider
Your water usage can play a big part in your dishwashing efficiency, but it isn’t the only thing to consider. How we use our dishwashers also plays a big role in their sustainability. These factors include:
- Load size – In general, it’s best to run your dishwasher when you have a full load. This optimizes the amount of energy and water it uses in relation to the number of dishes you wash.
- How your water is heated – When water enters your home, it’s at about a chilly 60 degrees—but the recommended temperature for your dishwasher is between 120–150 degrees.7 This means it will take some energy to heat the dishwashing water.
- The products you use – The detergent you use can also affect the size of the environmental impact you leave behind from washing dishes. Using plant-powered cleaning products can help you minimize the harmful toxins and chemicals that drain into our ecosystems.
Is a Dishwasher More Hygienic Than Hand Washing?
When it comes to giving your dishes a fully sanitized, ultra-hygienic clean, your dishwasher is your best bet. This is because compared to hand washing, dishwashers:
- Use hotter water – Those 120–150 degree water temperatures of your dishwasher can lead to a more hygienic clean that might not be achievable at the sink. For the sake of your hands and the environment, we’d suggest avoiding such scalding temps at the sink altogether.
- Carry fewer bacteria – Hand washing your dishes exposes them (and you) to harmful bacteria in your sponges and dish towels. On the other hand, the bacterium that’s commonly found in dishwashers is thought to be relatively safe for humans.8
Cleaner Plates and a Cleaner Planet: Why Sustainable Dishwashing Matters
As the dishwasher shines our plates to mirror-like perfection, it might seem like your job is done. However, it’s important to take every step we can to minimize the impact of our cleaning. Whether you're using a water- and energy-efficient dishwasher or washing dishes by hand, there are products you can use for a cleaner planet.
Just take a look at some of the effects all that shining power can have:
- Dishwashers that aren’t energy efficient can contribute to air pollution, greenhouse gasses, and a larger carbon footprint overall.9
- Some dishwashing soaps contain chemicals like phosphates and petroleum, whose harmful effects can end up in our aquatic ecosystems.10
- Those same chemicals can leave residue on our dishware, potentially causing harm to our health as well.
So, what should you do if your dishwasher gives your kitchen its own 90s throwback or you simply want to make your environmental efforts stretch even further? Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to increase your dishwashing efficiency.
How to Use Your Dishwasher Efficiently
In a greener future, hopefully we’ll all have more efficient water heaters and ENERGY STAR-certified dishwashers. In the meantime, there are several things you can do to make your dishwashing more efficient and do your part for the planet.
Here are some key things to keep in mind the next time you’ve got a sinkful of dirty dishes:
- Don’t pre-rinse your dishes – It might seem like pre-rinsing saves your dishwasher work, but in fact, it’s better to skip this step. Rinsing your dishes before you put them into the washer wastes about 600 gallons of water per year, according to Consumer Reports.11 Instead, you should scrape any remaining food from the dishes and load them dry.
- Run full loads only – Although it might be tempting to run your dishwasher with only your favorite coffee mug, one or two plates, and a few pieces of silverware, running small loads will drastically impair your efficiency efforts. Full loads make the best use of energy and water.12
- Run fewer loads – Aside from only running full loads, try to be aware of how often you run your dishwasher. In general, we recommend not running your dishwasher more than once a day. Instead, find ways to reduce the number of dishes you use, such as by limiting each person in your household to a daily water glass and coffee cup.
- Be wise about when you use your dishwasher – If you’re a multitasking master, you might pride yourself on doing the dishwashing, washing the car, and filling the swimming pool all at once. When you can, however, we suggest using your dishwasher when you and your family aren’t already putting a strain on your home’s water resources. For example, running it late in the evening can be better than running it in the morning, when everyone’s using water to shower and brush their teeth.
- Use safer detergents – Go green with the products you use to clean your dishes. Whether you use liquid detergent or pods, make sure it’s biodegradable and that it doesn’t contain phosphates or petroleum.13 ECOS dishwashing soaps and detergents are readily biodegradable and U.S. EPA Safer Choice certified, which makes them healthier for the planet and for your family.
- Let your dishes air dry – Instead of using your machine’s built-in drying options, forgo the fans and electric dryers and air-dry your dishes. When the cycle is complete, you can open the door to let excess moisture out.
- Check your dishwasher’s temperature settings – If you have a newer model of dishwasher, it may have come with a built-in temperature booster. This setting can raise the water temperature beyond what your regular water heater can reach. For most dishwashing purposes, this usually isn’t necessary. Setting the temperature booster to match your home’s water heater can help you save even more energy.
ECOS: For Cleaner Dishes and a Clearer Conscience
Whether you’re scrubbing greasy pots and pans by hand or cleaning food-stained plates and utensils in your dishwasher, ECOS has the cleaner you need to finish the job safely and sustainably.
For over 50 years, we’ve been helping families help the environment with our safer home cleaning products. From laundry detergents and hand soaps to cleaners, disinfectants, and, of course, plant-powered dish soaps and detergents, our products are safer for people and for the planet.
When you want an exceptional clean that’s good for the earth, you want ECOS. We’ll wash, you dry.